Thursday, 22 September 2016

Jefford Redux: Montepulciano D'Abruzzo

So PK nudges me in the direction of a recent, unexpectedly strait-laced, article by Andrew Jefford on the importance of writing comprehensible taster's notes. This seems fair enough, and I can't fault Mr. Jefford's line of argument, but it doesn't stop there: the article contains, nested within it, an even more surprising piece of self-admonition, a great chunk of humility centering around the tendency of most wine writers to write badly and affectedly - and containing this mea culpa from Jefford himself: 'The language of tasting notes is practically unhelpful, and at best seen as "bulls**t". I've often thought this myself; indeed I feel uneasy for having based my career in part on it.'

Well. Now I hardly know which way to turn, especially since I once took a petulant swipe at Mr. Jefford for writing (among other things) this, about a Merlot: 'The 2009 brims with richness (cream, vellum, faded roses) and thick-textured, late-Romantic, Rosenkavalier-like decadence'. There you go. Scroll forward a year or so and he's positively hectic with remorse, declaring that 'Most wine descriptions possess zero literary merit', with the result that 'You end up with wine nerds writing for wine nerds, in an excitable, echo-filled ghetto'. Well, of course: most wine writing is a kind of anti-writing, a resistence to sense, but what a mixed-up age we live in, that Andrew Jefford should promote the idea that winespeak is a bad thing.

Back I go to the original piece - How to write wine tasting notes - my heart full of confused hope. And yes, Mr. Jefford, Mr. Rosenkavalier, is sober and to the point - No fruit salad, he warns us at the start, and he's right. Be partisan is another of his injunctions, but this amounts to not much more than the assertion that If you like it, make sure we know that, and why. Which is borderline gnomic and only gets me so far, but at least it's plain-spoken. The thing concludes with another link, this time to a Berry Bros. & Rudd-related guide, hiding under the sublimely commonplace headline How to understand wine.

This, in turn, and to my growing dismay, deals with really basic stuff, stuff even I have heard of although never properly mastered, stuff like acidity, fruit, alcohol, tannins - I mean, aren't we implicitly meant to be familiar with these concepts, so familiar that we can dispense with them altogether and start reaching for the thick textures and the faded roses? What, exactly, is going on here? Was the dial of wine appreciation reset while I was looking the other way, and now stands somewhere in the mid-1960s, a time when no-one knew anything about wine - no-one except a handful of the rich and/or privileged, people who embraced terms such as conoisseurship and cellar, terms so comically fusty only PK still feels comfortable with them?

I return once again to Jefford's How to write wine tasting notes, armed with an averagely loathsome Montepulciano D'Abruzzo, acquired from somewhere. The usual criteria: screwtop, 13%, price as near £5 as I can make it, hallucinatory copywriter's drivel on the label - A rich red wine with layer upon layer of damson and morello cherry flavours. One of those.

I test the Jefford system. 1: No fruit salad. Analogical descriptors are useful - if used in moderation. Limit yourself to half a dozen at most. Okay: it's kind of harsh and fruity, like a factory-made apple and blackberry pie. 2: Remember the structure. There is no structure, so far as I can see, just a mainstream whoof followed by an abiding sense of loss. 3: Balance is all. See 2. 4: Be partisan. I love this kind of wine, principally because it's relatively cheap and available. 5: Be comprehensive. I've mentioned the screwtop, the price range, the copy on the label, what else is there? Tell us its past and future, Jefford suggests, but this is a wine without either, only a coarse and unedifying present, perhaps a hint of stainless steel containers, the poetry of pipework and tanker trucks. 6: What else? See 5. And that's it, I'm done. 

Still, I think Jefford is onto something, here. Given the mixture of snobbery and pedantry that pervades most wine appreciation, I can't see his revisonist, back-to-basics ethos gaining much traction, but we must hope. After all, it's human nature to discard old cultures in favour of new. What if we called the new approach, Brutalist Wine Writing? It's got a ring to it, it sounds as if it means business. No, New Brutalist Wine Writing, that's better. If it was a magazine, I'd buy it.


Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Social Significance of Shoes – and Wine

I cannot understand how some people fail to appreciate the significance of their shoes. After all, if you are badly shod, you can hardly put your best foot forward.

Way, way back, in The Sloane Ranger Handbook, Ann Barr and Peter York observed that “Sloanes become hard of hearing if you’re wearing the wrong shoes. How,” he asked, “can one really understand a person wearing the wrong shoes?”

Your average punter decides they want a pair of brogues, and that the only further decision is black or brown. But that’s not enough for the serious shoe aficionado like myself. Full brogue, semi-brogue or quarter brogue? Longwing? Royal or Scottish? And when you say brown, is that tan, chestnut or oxblood?

And are we talking country or town?

You can see where this is heading, can’t you? Because your average punter also decides they want a bottle of wine, and the only further decision is red or white. But that’s not enough for the serious wine aficionade like myself. Beaujolais, Burgundy, or Bordeaux? Left Bank or Right? And when you say Bordeaux, is that Cru Bourgeois, Premier or Grand?

And are we talking lunch or dinner?

It’s a long road to knowledge. You start off learning the basic, physical requirements; how to put on a pair of shoes, how to remove a cork. Then you grow up a bit, and put away childish things, like velcro fastenings and screwcaps.

You learn there are both shoes and wines suitable for particular occasions. Vintage port and patent pumps are both ideally suited to formal dinners, but anachronistic elsewhere.

Indeed, there are shoes and wines whose very purpose is embedded in their names, like dessert wines, or trainers; do not bring them out unless accompanying dessert, or training.

The point, of course, is that the details are important. The details are everything. And it’s the people oblivious to the details who are most likely to be judged by them. Which is why the chap in the Mister Byrite shoes is likely to be cheerfully, obliviously wielding a bottle of Echo Falls.

There are those who follow what I can only describe as the CJ approach to both wine and shoe buying: function, and value. Fit is important, they’ll say – fit for the foot, fit for the food. That’s the basic requirement. But if it does the job, and doesn’t cost too much, then that’s all that matters.

Except that it’s not, and this month I had it all confirmed. It emerged that investment banks had failed interview candidates who wore brown shoes with their City suits. And I should think so, too.

And frankly, I think they should also have pointed them towards the drinks cabinet, and asked for a glass of claret, dismissing anyone who even lifts the bottle of Burgundy.

There will be those who say that there is a fundamental difference between shoes and wine which I am ignoring. That we need to have shoes, whereas we do not need to have wine. To which all I can say is, speak for yourself.


Thursday, 8 September 2016

Nero D'Avola: Sainsbury's Again

This week's style icon: Bruce Chatwin

It had taken me three days to cross the white plains which lay at the end of the distant Carpathians. A drover carried me the last miles to the door of the old ducal palace. Rooks cawed incessantly and a dung fire sent up a wavering line of blue smoke.

'It is far from your land,' said the drover. 'Perhaps he will not be in.'

The Dukedom of Vrigişti has its origins in the thirteenth century, when the Crusaders annexed an area of land in the name of Honorius III, creating a sovereign principality which lasted three hundred years before being absorbed into the Ottoman Empire and reduced in status to a Dukedom. The eleventh Duke of Vrigişti, the man I hoped to visit, was sixty-five years old and had no heirs.

'Perhaps not,' I said.

The drover removed his hat at the palace gate. A kumquat seller joined us, pushing his two-wheeled barrow with the familiar, loping, gait of a Hutsul. A metal bell, shaped like a mendicant's bowl, hung beside a rusting crucifix. I rang it and an old woman, her face as lined as a dry river-bed, came to admit me.

The kumquat seller followed me into the courtyard. There, fig trees grew and two men sat in the shade, playing dominoes. The building was formed in the style of the old palace at Artukulu; its shutters were closed and faded. The air smelled of dust and smoke and figs. The woman led me up a worn flight of stairs to a piano nobile.

'He is tired,' she said. 'But he will see you.'

I found myself in a great, empty room, its cracked stone floor inlaid with Topaz. An elderly man was in the centre of the room, reclining on a velvet cushion. A bulbul began to call outside. The walls were lined with pier-glasses and Iznik tiles. At last, the man looked up at me.

'It is kind of you to come. I am very poor company, that you should come so far. Would you care for wine? We may drink it within the palace walls. Please, sit.'

I thanked him and sat, cross-legged, on the floor. He turned and produced two glasses and a bottle of red wine from within a jadeite box. A plate of figs was brought in by the old woman.

'Since the Communists, it has been difficult.' The Duke's voice was soft and musical. 'Winston Churchill told my father once in Tangier that they would leave, one day, but that when they left, nothing would remain.' He unscrewed the cap from the bottle. 'I can only offer you this. It is a wine from Italy. I remember being driven along the corniche to Ventimiglia, before the War. It is a Nero D'Avola.'

He told me that once, he left the palace to travel. His brother, to curry favour with the ruling elite, had stripped the palace of all its possessions, including a table which once belonged to the Princesse Eugénie and a Chinese sarcophagus from the Tang Dynasty. He gave them to the local Party Secretary. Torches burned through the night as the building was ransacked. On the Duke's return, the people of the village made him a bed of fig wood to sleep on. Later, some of the items were returned, including the jadeite box.

'They say this is the WInemakers' Selection. But who are the Winemakers? Once, I drank a wine called Taste the Difference. I could not taste the difference.'

Outside, the kumquat seller had joined the two men playing dominoes.

'Is there anyone else in the palace?' I asked. He said, no, there were only him and the old lady and the men playing dominoes. The palace had sixty-six rooms, some with shreds of damask still clinging to the walls, but most of the rooms were uninhabitable. The villagers came in to work, but their own lives were hard.

Later, I went to the village, where I found a room overlooking a grove of lemon trees. A dog scratched at a verbena bush. I read a book about Konstantin Melnikov. A storm was gathering and I went to play cards at the local inn.

I said, 'The Duke is very poor.'

One of the card players said, 'He is not a duke. He is a farmer. The Duke died two years ago. But he is a good man. When he dies, we will carry his body through the streets of the village and carve a fine headstone.'

The first drops of rain began to fall.